Gordon Brown's supporters have always been able to comfort themselves with the knowledge that, whatever his faults, the Prime Minister presided over a sustained reduction in poverty in Britain as Chancellor. But just as the shine is coming off Mr Brown's wider economic achievements at the Treasury, his record as a champion of the interests of the poor is looking rather shaky too.
The number of children living in poverty has risen for a second year according to Government figures released yesterday. On this trend, the New Labour target of halving child poverty by the end of the decade will be missed. Just as ominously for the Government, the latest figures show that pensioner poverty increased last year for the first time since 1998. And the poverty situation is likely to deteriorate as the cost of living rises.
It is hard not to have some sympathy for Mr Brown confronted with all this bad news regarding the plight of those on the lowest incomes. Despite present difficulties, he has done more than any politician of his generation to alleviate poverty. Since 1998 the number of children living in relative poverty has fallen by some 600,000. And some 900,000 pensioners have been lifted above the poverty line.
It must be galling indeed for the Prime Minister to hear Conservative politicians (many who have spent their entire political careers demanding tax cuts) now berating him for not doing enough to benefit the poor. It is also unfair to hold the Prime Minister personally responsible for the turbulence in the global economy, which looks likely to discomfort everyone in Britain, from the poorest to the very richest.
But several of Mr Brown's wounds on the poverty agenda are self-inflicted. Doubling the 10p income tax rate to pay for a cut in the basic rate last year was a piece of crude populism designed to curry favour with the middle classes. Some of the poorest would have paid for this. Last month's screeching Treasury U-turn will avert some of the damage, but not all.
And then there is the state of the public finances. There have been calls from various children's charities for the Government to spend an extra £3bn a year on benefits and tax credits to get back on track to meeting its targets. This makes sense. Poverty reduction stalled last year because such programmes were less generously funded. Yet the Treasury simply cannot afford such a package. It will be hard enough for the Government to meet even its present spending commitments without going dangerously deep into the red.
Mr Brown never trumpeted his achievements on poverty loud enough when he was making real progress towards the Government's goals for fear of appearing too radical a redistributionist. The Prime Minister will doubtless continue to avoid the subject, but now for altogether different reasons.Reuse content